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Creating Flexibility to Improve Engagement: The Benefits of the Cloud

The EvoLLLution | Creating Flexibility to Improve Engagement: The Benefits of the Cloud
Organizational flexibility and agility, facilitated by the use of cloud-hosted systems and tools, supports the development of the responsive programming critical to continuing education organizations and the institution by extension.

The world of higher education is an ever-changing landscape of new challenges, opportunities and roadblocks. Every year, a higher ed institution must attract new students and re-engage their existing students. To tackle the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities, an organization must be flexible and agile. However, being flexible and agile is often easier said than done.

Many higher education institutions are entrenched with legacy business systems. This software is often the opposite of flexible and agile. It was likely built during a time when software development only used the waterfall model—a formal and sequential process that is not very well prepared for change. Adopting a new business system is no easy task, however. Not only would that involve allocating a lot of financial and staff resources, but it would also require convincing people that change is a good thing.

Change management is often one of the most difficult parts of any software implementation project. There are definitely valid concerns that come up during this process—loss of productivity and competence, added difficulty of performing some tasks, etc. On the other hand, some issues raised are simply a way for people to create roadblocks in order to avoid having to deal with change. Something new implies having to deal with the unknown, and the unknown is scary.

Without change, though, there cannot be progress. And without progress, an institution cannot grow and serve its students.

Inflexibility’s Impact on Student Engagement

Today, a typical student is anything but typical. Learners of all ages are seeking to continue their education. A student can be someone just recently graduated from high school, a person that is already employed and looking to expand their skill set, or even someone that is retired that simply gets enjoyment out of learning new things.

In order to provide exceptional service, an educational institution needs to cater to the differing needs of its diverse student body. Creating different learning experiences for different students requires flexibility. Having the capacity to convert a traditional class into an online class, being able to enroll more students into a popular class while still giving each attendee personal attention, and creating rich learning environments that utilize the actual tools used in professional settings are all challenges that can only be met by a flexible institution.

An organization unable to act quickly and respond to its students’ needs and feedback in a timely manner will continue providing a one-size-fits-all education. Working professionals will not be able to attend the classes offered by this institution, because their schedules do not allow for a class that is not presented in an online, self-paced format. Students interested in emerging fields won’t find any class offerings, because it takes too long to procure the technology to assist with the class. Class sizes will begin to feel overwhelming for both the instructors and the students, because the tools necessary to personalize the learning experience and give each student the attention they need and want will not be available. One size does not fit all, and in a changing world, one size fits less and less.

Cloud Technologies Can Provide the Solution

So what can an institution do to become more flexible? One solution is to turn to the cloud. The cloud has become a popular buzzword in recent times. Jokingly, the cloud has been referred to as the solution to everything. As with most jokes, there is a grain of truth to it.  While turning to the cloud is not the answer to all of life’s problems, there is definitely a lot to gain by considering a cloud-based alternative for existing and future systems and services.

At its very core, a cloud-based solution is one that does not require an organization to have physical resources on-hand. Purchasing a new server, waiting for it to ship, configuring it, and finally being able to use it can be an extremely lengthy process that requires a hefty budget, the technical wherewithal, and enough advance notice of an initiative that the timeline remains feasible. By turning to a cloud solution instead, someone else has already done most of the heavy lifting. Access to the computing power and tools needed is practically instantaneous. Worries about updates, maintenance, and uptime all reside with the cloud vendor, leaving an education institution the ability to focus more on the projects themselves.

Another major benefit of the cloud is that it removes (or at least diminishes) the fear of failure. No one wants to see a project or initiative fail, but not all projects are destined to succeed. The cloud gives you the agility needed to quickly test ideas, realize the ones that are going to fail, and move on. Cloud-based systems can be procured on an as-needed basis. Spin up a virtual server, test out a project, and then shutdown the machine when the experiment is finished. Paying for a few weeks’ or months’ worth of usage is a lot more palatable than purchasing a new server. Along with the financial savings also comes the temporal savings. Instant on, instant off.

Obtaining new software to support classes in emerging fields, adding more bandwidth to sustain a particularly popular online class, experimenting with an idiosyncratic technology that claims to increase student engagement can all be handled much more quickly, easily, and often times cheaply than the non-cloud alternative. Simply put, utilizing cloud-based systems and services adds incredible flexibility and agility to an organization.

Exercise Caution: Key Cloud Considerations for Leaders

Cloud technology definitely helps alleviate some of the administrative burden that exists when one is managing a system in-house. However, using cloud-based tools does not mean that you can take a completely “out of sight, out of mind” approach to software and services. There are still several important considerations that need to be taken into account before moving major administrative systems to the cloud.

Security should always be at the forefront of any list of important issues. It should remain paramount when considering a cloud-based solution. With a cloud-based solution, you are likely no longer directly involved in securing the system. However, it is still up to you to do your due diligence and verify the steps the cloud vendor is taking to ensure the safety of the data that will be placed in their system. Part of this process includes holding the vendor accountable for applying security patches in a timely manner. There are also different security requirements that an organization must adhere to depending on the type of data they are storing, so checking with the vendor to ensure they are certified to provide the level of security your organization needs is of utmost importance.

Another important question to consider is whether or not a particular type of data should even be stored in the cloud. There may be certain policies, regulations or laws that prohibit certain pieces of data from being stored outside of a geographic area or a company’s control. When it comes to cloud services, you don’t always know exactly where the physical servers that store your data are located. It would be all too easy to have your data actually end up outside of the country or somewhere else unexpected.

As with most decisions, cost must be considered. When migrating an existing system to the cloud, there are two areas that will generate costs. First, the actual conversion of the existing system into a cloud-based system will carry a price tag. The other cost will be the price of the cloud services themselves—hosting, maintenance, etc. These costs should be weighed against the resources required to continue running systems in-house and the limits imposed by not moving to a scalable, flexible cloud solution.

One has to be honest with themselves when deciding if they can truly be as hands-off as most cloud solutions require you to be. For most cloud services, someone else is managing the server the software you’re using is running on. Your direct access to a database or the file system may be limited. A requested change might have to go through an additional layer of support that was not previously present if everything was managed in-house. Sometimes this abstraction layer can pose a problem to those used to being more involved or when working with a vendor that is not as responsive as you expect them to be.

Finally, what is the value being added by moving to the cloud? One should always keep the business case in mind when deciding whether or not to do something. This includes the decision on moving to the cloud. While it is true the cloud could bring cost-savings and improved flexibility, it is also possible that for a specific scenario there is no benefit to moving to the cloud. No solution is appropriate 100 percent of the time.

The Benefits of Flexibility and Agility

While increasing flexibility and agility should be goals of all educational institutions, it is especially important for continuing education departments like UC Davis Extension. These departments are in a position to function like an incubator of new and experimental ideas and technologies.

Traditional universities are typically large institutions that have lots of staff, faculty and students. Rolling out a new service or trying to implement a change can often be a long and difficult process. There are various levels of approvals that need to occur, many different departments that would be affected, and lots of lead time would be needed to plan a rollout on such a huge scale. A failure of a project on such a large scale could become a public relations nightmare.

By comparison, a department like UC Davis Extension is more like a startup. There are fewer staff, instructors and full-time students. However, there is also a quicker turnaround time when it comes to implementing an initiative, assessing the effects of a new tool, or gaining the green-light on a project. The more agile and flexible UC Davis Extension becomes, the quicker and more efficient the experimentation process becomes.

Eventually, successful experiments can be transitioned to a larger scale and put into use by the main campus. This allows the rest of the institution to remove a lot of the risk with trying something new. Mistakes on the smaller scale can be learned from, wins can be amplified, and the whole process becomes much safer and more streamlined.

And what happens with the failed experiments? Well, they can be quickly forgotten. After all, thanks to cloud services, severing ties with a project can be as simple as pushing a button.

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